Scottish universities are braced for an upsurge in applications from Northern Ireland students wanting to exploit a free degree passport loophole, a leading economist has predicted.
This year 5,251 of Northern Ireland’s 19,148 Ucas applicants sought a place at a Scottish university — more than a quarter of all applicants.
However, only students from here who hold an Irish passport and applied for a place at one of Scotland’s 18 universities will be eligible for free fees. Northern Ireland students, as well as English and Welsh, with a British passport will have to pay an average of £27,364 in fees for four years of study in Scotland.
Under the Scottish Government’s funding policy, students living in Scotland and other EU countries including Ireland get their fees paid.
It’s estimated that around 25% of Northern Ireland students who applied to a Scottish university for the 2011/2012 academic year did so citing Irish nationality.
Economist John Simpson, a former assistant dean at Queen’s University Belfast and a visiting professor at University of Ulster, believes that the Scottish loophole will be exploited even further by students from Northern Ire
land when Ucas applications open next month for the 2013/14 year.
“If two universities are offering the same course — one in England and one in Scotland — undoubtedly students will opt for Scotland,” he said.
Ucas figures show that applications to Scottish universities from European Union students are up 6.3% on last year.
While Northern Ireland applications are down 14.3%, experts believe that this is because the fees loophole was not widely known at the time when students were making their university choices in autumn 2011.
It’s understood that at least 1,200 applications from students living in Northern Ireland but holding an Irish passport were received by Scottish universities for this September.
If all of them secure a place it could cost the Scottish Government more than £40m.
Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, has said “dire predictions” of a flood of people from Northern Ireland into Scottish universities had not been realised.
However, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has demanded the loophole is closed.
She previously said: “The Scottish Government's defence for this massive confusion appears to be, in short, that nobody's noticed yet so it will all be alright. Well, that's not good enough, because we need to clear (this up) now.”